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Bang! Bang! Bang!
The three explosions slam into the windshield of the Volvo SUV I am riding in with such force that I immediately turn to our driver, Marina, and ask if something hit the car. The corners of her mouth turn down as she intones, 'no - it was the Camaro.'
I look up ahead through the pouring rain and see that she's right. The red 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, the one with the most modern guts on our two-Camaro team, is slowly limping to the shoulder. We pull in behind, hit the four-ways, and wait for Steve, our mechanic, the man who built each of the machines, to make his diagnosis.
We're 11 kilometres outside of Oslo. It's nine pm. Almost made it.
Let me back things up a bit to Day Zero, the day before the Gumball 3000 rally. As I explained in my opening journal entry last week, the Gumball has been an annual event for over 15 years now, an excuse for some of the world's most expensive, rarest, and in some cases just plain eccentric cars to get together and hopefully cover a great amount of distance in a short space of time. For 2015, the event spans from Stockholm, Sweden, to Las Vegas, Nevada, with a pair of cargo planes bridging the Atlantic in the middle of the rally. It's conspicuous consumption, wrapped in a party, riding shotgun in a McLaren P1, that also happens to be on fire.
I landed in Stockholm late on Saturday afternoon, with only a few hours to wander around the city post-registration. One of the most gorgeous capitals in all of Europe, Stockholm's archipelago was crawling with tourists and sun-soaking Swedes alike, with the focal point being the Gumball 3000 grid on a stone bridge just in front of the capital building. It was here that I found a mix of old and new exotics: Vipers, Ferraris, and 911s. Mixed in were more than a few outliers, including a trio of 918s, a six-wheel Volvo transport truck, a Ford Raptor, and a Lamborghini LM002, an SUV so rare that even ordering one of its bespoke tires is a pain in the ass. Gumball's spectacle is such that the fenced-off grid was capped by a massive stage setup designed to keep the masses entertained far into the night and, of course, at the kick-off the next morning.
The Team Assembles
My first meeting with the Asiandate.com and Anastasiadate.com team came that evening, as we all ended up at a small, vibrant restaurant a few blocks from the Grand Hotel where Gumball had established its HQ. The websites, which serve as online focal points for 'international dating,' are sponsoring not just the rally itself, but a pair of entries backed by the single largest support team on the event. We're close to 40 members strong, made up of journalists, logistics experts, managers, our four official drivers, and various videographers and photographers all working to keep our 10-vehicle fleet pointed in the right direction.
There's an empty seat at the table tonight, however, as it was revealed to me by a colleague that one of our own had been arrested that morning in a dust-up outside an after-hours following a night of too much celebration. Would he be out in time to join us the next day en route? No one seemed to know. Would he be deported? It wasn't clear. Dinner arrived, and the topic was changed.
More interesting than who was missing that evening was who was seated beside me. To my left was Dmitrii, the owner and operator of the two dating websites as well as a portfolio of other extremely profitable business interests. Young and with an open, engaging character, and a fellow musician, Dmitri had flown in on one of his private aircraft the day before, full-size electronic piano in tow. He plays every night before going to bed, and had in fact requested if the Royal Swedish Opera House was available for booking as he desired a chance to test the concert hall's acoustics from the main stage. Sadly, it was not. On the other side of Dmitri was Anthony, the second principal of Asiandate.com and Anastasiadate.com's Gumball effort, and a true car guy if I've ever met one. It was his decision to go with a pair of '69 Camaros to stand out from the crowd of million dollar super cars, and also to satisfy his own particular fetish for these icons of Americana.
Spirits were high as the evening drew to a close - midnight for jet-lagged me, morning for others - and all had faith that the weeks spent preparing the mammoth logistics of our Gumball operation would bear delicious, hydrocarbon-laden fruit that week. Little did we know that the universe, and the car gods, were drawing their plans silently against us.
Countdown to Mayhem
The Camaros were an inspired choice, as the Scandinavian crowds couldn't get enough of our classic Chevys even when sitting there parked, fourth in line for departure the next morning (a privilege that cost the team $14,000 in a bidding war the night before). Helping to further bring their Nordic blood to a boil on Day One of the Gumball were the exhaust cut-outs installed on each car: the 383 cubic inch stroker motors shook the earth with the traps open, drowning out many a whizzing V10 and V12 in our immediate vicinity.
I started out the morning in the red Camaro's chase car, with the number 67 entry featuring Dmitri at the wheel and our official team drivers Jasmine and Ying, riding as passengers (Dmitri would later transfer to his personal helicopter to keep tabs on us from the sky). Anthony spelled the first shift at the wheel in the yellow car, with our jumpsuit-wearing team-mates Milana and Alisa along for the ride. Why the relegation to the right seat? Upon arriving in Stockholm, it became clear that despite their best intentions, the models selected from the two dating sites weren't familiar enough with long-distance driving, or the nuances of third-pedal driving, to tackle Europe's narrow streets and heavy traffic. A rotating cast of journalists and crew would slip in behind the wheel throughout the week to spread out the piloting duties.
Oslo By Way Of America By Way Of A Time Machine
My own shift driving the red beast would come that afternoon after our lunch stop at Orebro Castle, Sweden, where we are greeted by throngs of gearheads lining the streets and fawning over the metal parked on the grounds of the 13th century structure. As I slipped behind the wheel and cinch the lap belt tight, the morning's police briefing from Stockholm's own Officer Anders comes to the fore. He was right - though local law enforcement was patient, it was also firm, and our own team had already suffered one stop-and-arrest in the past three hours, along with a separate, on-the-spot license suspension. We were in good company: by the end of the day, six rally drivers would be in custody, with charges ranging from speeding to not actually possessing a license at all.
All thoughts of seeing the inside of a Swedish jail cell were erased from my mind the moment I turned the Camaro's key and felt the analog rumble of the stroked V8's 425 horses splatter all over the cobblestones. Drawn in by the sound, the crowd moved even closer to the car, making it that much more difficult to describe an adequate steering arc from the courtyard to the roadway. The red coupe's suspension had been modernized to the point where its turning radius was somewhat compromised, but it was worth it for the extra control, paired with the Baer brakes at each corner and the five-speed transmission whose shifter juts up through the centre console like a shiny steel dare.
The clutch's mechanical linkage was forgiving, and the engine's cam willing to rev to over 8,000 rpm, not that I planned on seeing anything over 6k for the sake of respecting someone else's equipment. I couldn't help but smile as I pulled up behind the yellow Camaro to plot a course through the centre of Orebro towards the Norwegian border. What a glorious racket! What a ridiculous way to spend a summer afternoon in Sweden!
About 20 minutes into the drive, I noticed that the Camaro's gauge read dangerously near E for empty. I call out this problem on the radio, and am met with admonishment from Carl, the support team leader: 'It's impossible that it's out of fuel! We just filled it!' We decided that the gauge must be acting up, press on using the yellow car's fuel window as a guide. The carbureted car's throttle response was crisp and linear, and in all honesty, aside from being a bit too wide for Swedish city streets, the Camaro was a pussy cat to drive.
Strike One, and Two
A thirsty pussycat, with sharp claws, of course. Cut-outs open even at highway speeds sang out the incineration of dino-dust as I eased up past 80-mph on the highway. My partner for the afternoon was Steve, the man who built each of the team's two cars, and a great conversationalist who's enthusiastically enjoying the break from his shop, West Coast Muffler, in California.
All was going well as we linked up with one of the Porsche 918s for 50-km stretch, when the Camaro started to sputter. I feathered the throttle to try and keep it alive, but was forced to aimed for the next turn-out, with the car shutting down as soon as we roll to a stop. I immediately announced on the radio that we'd run out of gas, because the car was acting exactly like the tank had run dry. There are radio-borne recriminations - how could the car be empty after such a recent fuel stop, and when her sister has over half a tank?
After a minute of sitting, we tried the ignition on a hunch. It started up right away, which was both a surprise and a blessing. The following five minutes of driving were filled with diagnostic theorizing: were the cut-outs heating the fuel lines and causing vapour lock? Did we drain the carb on a particularly exciting two-three shift? Mid-speculation, the Camaro once again started to hesitate on me, this time on a downhill stretch, before completely dying a second death in the Swedish forest. I guided it towards another fortuitously-placed turn-out, and after careful consideration of all the data - including a fuel receipt that showed a team member only put 14 litres of fuel into what is actually a 14 gallon (59 litre) tank - we came to the expert conclusion that the vehicle was 100 percent completely empty.
40 minutes and one photo-op smoke bomb later (it only works for two minutes, push the car harder!), we were met by a support car and a borrowed 20-litre jerry can (whose owner had warned our team-mates that he 'didn't know what used to be stored in there,' so we 'better be careful'). At a filling station a few kilometres down the road I handed the keys over to fellow writer Nick, who had the pleasure of the next stretch of Camaro fun tempered by the torrential rainstorm that of course erupted while we were waiting for our fuel delivery.
It was an uneventful hour or so of highway driving as I watched Nick and Steve from the front seat of the chase Volvo with Marina and Jasmine, who had transferred her flag to our sport-utility vehicle. Not that far past the Norwegian border, however, I noticed a cloud of black smoke briefly foul the Camaro's tailpipes.
And We're Out
A few klicks later, and we're back at the beginning of this tale with three loud raps on the XC60's glass and the sad, but by now seemingly unavoidably occupation of the shoulder by the red car.
I step out of the Volvo into the rain and run up to the immobilized machine, where Steve is leaning into the engine bay, hood open, eyes wide with disbelief. 'It's the distributor,' he says to me. 'It's exploded.' I can see with my own eyes the huge hole in the side of the cap, which has emptied its guts all over the highway a mere 11 km from our stop for the evening. A brand-new MSD cap exploding under normal driving is unheard of, and yet here we are, cursed by the Norse gods for daring to infringe on the hallowed grounds that rightly belong to the scions of Gothenburg with our hubristically foreign muscle.
A tow is called. Half the crew stays behind with the Camaro while the rest of us attempt to salvage our hotel reservations and prep for tomorrows Oslo-to-Copenhagen leg. At a local McDonalds - the only restaurant open after ten pm on what is apparently Norway's most important national holiday - I run into a local racer who offers to put us in touch with a potential source for a replacement MSD distributor.
The clock is ticking. The car goes under the knife. Our nine am start time looms large.
Gumball By The Numbers: Day One
Number of first-gear cut-offs witnessed: 30-plus
Celebrity Oddness Meter:2/10
Team Tension: 4/10
Camaro Reliability Index: 5/10
Weird Scandinavian Food Encounters: 1 (I accidentally ate reindeer)
Exotic Death Count: 0
Number of Scandinavians lining the roads in the rain to cheer us on between checkpoints: at least 500, if not 1000.
New Swedish Words Learned: 'Raggarbil,' or 'rockabilly car,' which refers to any mildly customized or hot-rodded Volvo from the 80s or 90s.
Follow Day Two of our Gumball 3000 coverage HERE.
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